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January 20, 2009

A Secretary of the Arts?

Lily Tung wrote here yesterday about Quincy Jones's push for a Cabinet-level Secretary of the Arts, and hence a Ministry of Culture, in the Obama administration. I had written about Obama's idea for an Artists' Corps here and in Doug McLennan's arts-education discussion on the ArtsJournal site. I signed Jones's online petition calling for an arts secretary. But I haven't pontificated about the idea in particular.

Today, during the Inaugural Parade, Jones was on CNN talking about an arts secretary. What I hadn't realised was how close he was to Obama, and that he, Oprah and our new president had talked together back in 2005. I can't remember whether the arts-secretary came up that early, but I doubt it.

Jones was vague about what such a secretary might actually do. He mentioned how the United States was about the only country without a culture ministry. He mentioned our poor level of arts education and how proud he was to be named a Commander (the top of the three tiers) of Arts and Letters by France. But he mentioned twice that he didn't expect starting such a ministry to be at the top of the president's priorities.

Quite apart from lingering tensions from the Culture Wars and reflexive resistance from Republicans, there is a hard truth behind Jones's hesitations. Foreign countries have ministries, and hence ministers or secretaries, for the arts because they subsidize culture in a significant way; public funding is their primary form of arts support. An arts secretary could serve as a cheerleader for arts education and maybe start up an awards program like the French. There are the Kennedy Center Honors, and calling attention to the arts through an expanded performance and exhibition program at the White House.

But the likelihood of this country shifting over to a major public financing model for the arts, as opposed to our current private philanthropy with tax deductions, seems improbable any time soon. And without that marriage of pomp (a secretary in the cabinet) and substance (real money from Washington for the arts), there would seem little reason for Obama to expend political capital on creating a secretary any time soon.

Unless, maybe, he could simply do it by fiat, but chances are he couldn't, given that Congress has to approve cabinet appointments. The cheerleading and awards programs could be handled by a strong chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Which is my guess for exactly what will happen. I'd love to be proved wrong.  

January 20, 2009 3:59 PM | | Comments (0)

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